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Fatherhood and a ‘Cure’ for Men Behaving Badly Syndrome

To follow the news the last few weeks suggests there’s been a virulent outbreak of MBBS—Men Behaving Badly Syndrome. But behind the lurid stories of privileged men acting with an audacious sense of entitlement is another story—men who do the right thing. Father’s Day is a good time to engage in a more nuanced discussion of manhood.

We don’t hear much about the good guys thanks to the media’s maxim: dog bites man no story, man bites dog, big story. What broadcast outlet, newspaper, or Internet blog would highlight a father who stays home to raise his children when they can cover a sex scandal?

Fatherhood, like manhood, is in transition as more men reject conventional ideas of both roles. That’s the bigger story. For more than three decades, a slow, but steadily growing movement of men—fathers featured prominently among them—has been charting a new course for manhood. Rather than being threatened by feminism, these men recognized that women taking action to redefine their role in society presented an opportunity for men to do the same.

Sure, initially most men were confused and angry when they realized women were serious about no longer accepting a playing field tilted in men’s favor. Slowly, though, some men got it: women rejecting their confining gender box meant men also could bust out of ours.

Many found in fatherhood a chance to rediscover our capacity to nurture—an ability drummed out of us early, beginning when we first heard the words, “big boys don’t cry.”

Why not cry? It is in our tears and fears that men rediscover our full humanity. It takes courage for men to express our vulnerability rather than our anger. But doing so opens us up to being labeled a mama’s boy or gay. So we go the other way—dominating others, often women, to try and nourish our sad inner lives. The result? Operating from below our waists rather than from within our hearts.

Most people empathized with the betrayal Maria Shriver felt when former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted he fathered a child a decade ago. We identified with the wife of former New York Congressmember Anthony Weiner, who finally confessed he’d sent those photographs over Twitter.

What does it say about some men that they risk their careers, reputations, and marriages for a roll in the hay, real or virtual? What insecurities are at play? What pressures are they experiencing? What feelings are they trying to keep at bay? We can season our outrage with a dollop of compassion and invite men who feel—and act—differently to stop being bystanders, to clearly articulate a different definition of manhood, demanding it have its day in the national conversation about men.

For eons society has condoned Men Behaving Badly Syndrome. But for the men who have rejected its main ingredients—privilege and entitlement—it is time to end our silence. A society that celebrates the stud more than the dad reaps what it sows. Fatherhood may not be sexy but it sure is real, awakening in men a capacity to access our highest angels—from cultivating empathy and patience to practicing sacrifice and humility. Not every man has to become a father to personally dig deep, but for many it has proven to be the doorway to growing up.

For too long, Father’s Day has been a caricature of a holiday. So sure, fire up the barbecue if you like but let’s use it to ignite a campaign to reclaim manhood. That’s the best legacy the child Anthony Weiner’s wife is carrying can receive from its father. And from the rest of us.

Thursday, June 16th, 2011 Editor's Blog

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